Does the U.S. Need a Truth & Reconciliation Commission?

In this two-part lesson, teachers and students explore the concept of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions as a way for nations and communities to begin dialogues and chart a path toward healing.

To The Teacher:

Many lawmakers have called for Congressional hearings on the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Others, mostly not in government, are suggesting “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions” as a necessary step toward healing in America post-insurrection.

Some have called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to acknowledge President Biden’s victory and dispel the election fraud lie. Others have spoken of the need for such a commission on America’s legacy of racism and white supremacy (though most who have been interviewed on the topic say it’s not likely to happen).

And, on September 29, 2020, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Deb Haaland, (D-NM) introduced a bill titled, “The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States Act.”

In this two-part lesson, teachers and students explore the concept of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions as a way for nations and communities to begin dialogues and chart a path toward healing.

Teacher Background:
Truth & Reconciliation Commissions In a Nutshell

(Excerpted from an article in the Washington Post by Kelebogile Zvobgo, director of the International Justice Lab at William & Mary and Claire Crawford, a PhD candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California.)

truth commission is a temporary, government-sponsored body that investigates political violence, the affected communities and the individuals and institutions responsible. Commissions receive testimony from hundreds, if not thousands, of witnesses. They gather and analyze documents and visit sites of violence. Commissions conclude their work with a report detailing their findings and recommendations. Recommendations by previous commissions include changes to police and military institutions, victim compensation and memorials and museums.

Pundits have spread a number of misconceptions about truth commissions over the years. In the United States, for instance, some analysts hold fast to the idea that commissions are for “other” countries — not developed Western democracies.

Although many commissions have been created during political transitions — when a country shifts from authoritarianism to democracy or civil war to peace — they can be (and have been) established in the West, including in GermanyCanada, and the United States. In the 1980s, Congress held a commission to study the federal policy of relocating people of Japanese ancestry and holding them in internment camps during World War II.

Just because a country is already a democracy or hasn’t recently experienced a civil war doesn’t mean it can’t benefit from a commission. Research shows that more than one-third of global commissions have been established outside of political transitions. Commissions in the United States could, for example, examine systemic racism and persistent violence against Black and Indigenous people and people of color.

Teacher Background: 
Proposed Commission on U.S. Indian Board School Policy

On September 29, 2020, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Deb Haaland, (D-NM) introduced the “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States Act” to “establish the first formal commission in United States history to investigate, document, and acknowledge past injustices of the federal government's cultural genocide and assimilation practices through its Indian Boarding School Policy,” according to Sen. Warren. The commission would also develop recommendations for Congress to “aid in healing of the historical and intergenerational trauma passed down in Native American families and communities and provide a forum for victims to speak about personal experiences tied to these human rights violations.”

Haaland is President Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Department of the Interior, which houses the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Haaland, who earned her J.D. in Indian law from the University of New Mexico School of Law, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribal nation. As children, her grandparents, along with hundreds of thousands of other Native American children, were taken from their families as part of a federal policy to strip Indigenous peoples of their language, culture, and sovereignty and assimilate them into American culture and society.

Truth & Reconciliation Carving
Aboriginal carving for Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, photo by Eyesplash 

Day 1: Learning & Discussion


Whole group instruction:

Use a KWL chart to introduce the lesson and establish a baseline for students’ understanding of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions.
(3 minutes)

What do you know

What do you want to know? What have you learned?











Next, use these Google slides to share with students a history of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions. (Text for the slides is below, with instructions for the teacher in italics.)
(7 minutes)

Slide #1

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions may also be referred to as Truth Commissions, Truth and Justice Commissions, or even Truth and Healing Commissions.

Using the information above, share with students that Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Deb Haaland have introduced a “Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States Act” to investigate Indian boarding schools in the United States, their abuse of children and the harm  done to families.

Slide #2

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have as a goal to hold perpetrators of human rights violations and atrocities accountable for their actions.

Slide #3

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are established by governments, and they’re different from court proceedings. During the hearings, victims and perpetrators testify about what happened or what actions they took, but the commissions don’t hand out punishments like a court of law would. Often, perpetrators of atrocities are granted immunity from legal prosecution in exchange for their participation and testimony about their actions and the crimes they committed.

Slide #4

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission typically issues a report of its findings at the end of the process. If a report is not issued or the hearings are not made public, the process is generally thought to be corrupt since the whole point of the hearings is to allow everyone to hear the truth of what occurred and understand what conclusions were drawn after people have spoken.

Slide #5

To reconcile means to restore harmony. Truth commissions typically use a restorative justice model instead of a punitive justice model.

Ask students what they think the difference is between a restorative model and a punitive model.

Slide #6

Often, truth commissions make recommendations that center on what needs to happen in the future, given what happened in the past. Reparations are sometimes, but not often, included in these recommendations.

Slide #7

One argument AGAINST truth commissions in the U.S. is that the work that is supposed to be done in these commissions should be carried outby investigative journalists, our legal system, congressional hearings, and public dissent.

Slide #8

Many say that truth commissions are needed to establish and preserve a record of whatever harm or atrocity has been committed since, in some instances, government officials (presidents, prime ministers) order the destruction of official records. A counter-argument is that instead of establishing truth commissions, we should work harder to stop the government from destroying official records.

Note: The American Historical Association in 2020 joined the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington lawsuit against the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) who in December 2019 approved ICE’s request to begin destroying records documenting mistreatment of immigrants detained in ICE custody. Former President Trump was said to have destroyed or ordered destroyed official records of abuses.

Slide #9

Another argument against Truth Commissions is that since they’re not legal proceedings, they let people off the hook—often people who’ve committed violent crimes that harmed many people.

Videos/Discussion: Truth Commissions & Native Americans

Next, show three short videos.

Both in the U.S. and in Canada, Native American children were forced into boarding schools (residential schools) and routinely abused.

In the first video, an author summarizes the horror and abuses endured by children and families in the United States. The next two videos highlight Canada’s 2016 Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the abuses suffered by Aboriginal children and families in Canada and what has happened in the five years since the commission ended.
(15 minutes)

After watching the videos, engage students in a whole class debriefing.

Ask students:

  • What most struck you about these three videos?
  • What feelings do you have after watching them?
  • What questions do you have?

Then, segue into a brief discussion of the 2020 bill to establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States.
(15 minutes)

Tell students that in your next session, they will participate in a fishbowl discussion on truth commissions.

To end the day, instruct students in fishbowl circle guidelines.
(5 minutes)

Fishbowl Guidelines and Protocol

Virtual Fishbowl:

Have the fishbowl discussion topic recorded in the chat. Teachers will begin the virtual fishbowl with everybody’s microphone muted and everyone’s video on.

Welcome students to the fishbowl discussion by reading the discussion topic. Next, ask everyone except the students inside the fishbowl to go off camera. Once there are four to six pre-selected students on camera, they’ll begin the discussion. Students off camera will listen to the discussion and record into the chat any statement they hear that makes them go “hmmmm,” “ahh,” or “huh.”

They don’t have to write the statement exactly as it was stated, but rather they can paraphrase it according to what they think they heard.

The teacher will call on students to join the discussion (enter the fishbowl), and students will use their recorded statements—those things they had questions about or strong reactions to—to contribute to the discussion. When the teacher calls on a student to enter the fishbowl, they will, simultaneously ask a student in the fishbowl to go off camera. When off camera, the student will listen to the discussion and record in the chat their responses, reactions or questions. Teachers will rotate students in and out of the fishbowl throughout the discussion.  

In Person Fishbowl:

Arrange five or six chairs in an inner circle or "fishbowl" and arrange the remaining classroom chairs/desk in an outer circle. 

Students in the inner circle will begin the discussion. Students in the outer circle are responsible for listening to the discussion AND writing down statements that make  them go "hmmm," "ahh," or "huh?" 

Students in the fishbowl may leave the inner circle after they've contributed to the discussion and only when they’ve been tapped out by a student in the outer circle (an outer-circle student will tap them on the shoulder).

The student who enters the fishbowl will then contribute to the conversation. In this way, the conversation will be ongoing, with multiple viewpoints shared. Outer circle participants will continue to record their thoughts and reflections on the discussion so that when they enter the fishbowl, they have something meaningful to contribute. 

All students, those who begin the discussion in the inner circle and those who begin in the outer circle, should have paper and pen (or an electronic device) available for recording their thoughts and questions about the discussion.


Day 2: Fishbowl Discussion 

Set up the classroom/virtual classroom for your fishbowl discussion.

Choose one of the questions/topics below for your fishbowl discussion:

  • Should we, as a nation, participate in a truth commission about our legacy of racism, white supremacy, and the oppression of people of color? How might such a commission be structured?
  • Should Congress pass H.R. 8420, The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States Act? What might be the impact of a truth commission that examines the horrible legacy of Indian boarding schools and how they impacted Native American children and their families?
  • Given what you’ve learned about truth commissions, do you think it makes sense to hold them?
  • What might be the impact of having a truth commission about the January 6th insurrection on Capitol Hill?